Yemen veers towards escalation

Ahmed Eleiba , Tuesday 26 Nov 2019

Iran has shifted gears on the conflict in Yemen against a backdrop of domestic upheaval, signalling a possible downward turn for the war-torn country, writes Ahmed Eleiba

Yemen veers towards escalation
Saudi forces stand guard during the arrival of Yemen’s prime minister to Aden (photo:AFP)

UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths arrived in Sanaa on Sunday, 24 November, for a visit that had to be postponed for a few days due to unforeseen circumstances. In his briefing to the UN Security Council on Friday, Griffiths reported a substantial decrease in violence in the war-torn country during the previous two weeks.

There were reportedly almost 80 per cent fewer airstrikes nationwide than in the two weeks prior to this briefing, and security incidents in the port city of Hodeida had dropped by 40 per cent, and since five joint observation posts were created along the front lines, incidents were down 80 per cent, he said. However, between that Friday and his visit on Sunday, developments proceed in the opposite direction to the optimistic tone Griffiths struck in the Security Council when he said that “signs of hope in Yemen… are beginning to produce results.”

Yemeni government media reported that Houthi militias targeted the Yemeni government’s delegation to the negotiations over Hodeida and broadened strikes against the Saudi-led Arab Coalition forces.

The militias fired five to eight missiles towards the port city of Mocha, pro-government sources reported, adding that the head of the government delegation managed to survive an assassination attempt that concurred with a strike against the headquarters of the government delegation in Hodeida.

In addition, the communications centre of the Giants Brigade, a militia fighting for the Yemeni government, reported that the Houthis had moved large amounts of heavy and middle weight military machinery and missile platforms to southern Hodeida province and Al-Dalie province to reinforce their positions there.

The Houthis, for their part, reported that the Saudi-led coalition carried out air strikes against their locations in Hodeida. According to local reports, the strikes targeted two Houthi weapons depots.

The Houthis maintain that their strikes against government targets in Hodeida were in retaliation to attacks by government forces which fired 24 mortar shells against the Beit Al-Fiqih directorate in Hodeida.

The mutual escalation has led analysts to observe that Griffiths’ upbeat discourse failed to reflect the political and military situation in Yemen. They believe that the UN envoy has adopted this language because he does not want risk losing his channels of communications with either side. They further maintain that the Houthis do not sincerely subscribe to the Stockholm agreement, but have been playing along with it because the process works in their favour at present.

Nevertheless, according to analysts, recent developments have given the Houthis motive to reassess their stance and to redeploy their forces accordingly. Foremost among these developments is the Riyadh agreement between the government of President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi and Southern Transitional Council (STC) which, apparently, came as a surprise to the Houthi Movement.

Under the security protocol of the Riyadh agreement, the command structure of the Yemeni army and Arab coalition forces will be restructured to enable these forces to focus on the confrontation against the Houthis. Therefore, the Houthis have apparently decided to take pre-emptive measures, taking advantage of the over two-month delay in the implementation of the arrangements called for by the protocol.

It is also likely that the Iranian factor is motivating current Houthi actions. Iranian news reports have suggested that Riyadh is among the powers instigating widespread protests that have erupted in Iran recently.

Analysts suggest that Tehran, in return, has prompted the Houthis into taking actions that would assert pressure on Saudi Arabia, particularly in the framework of its presence in southern Yemen. Whether or not this is the case, Iran appears to have shifted positions on Yemen. For several months, Iran had been speaking of the need to promote the peace process in Yemen and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has said that he was ready to go to Riyadh to support this process.

Now Iran has reversed this stance and taken a major symbolic step in support of the Houthi authorities in Sanaa. Last week, Tehran installed the Houthi-appointed ambassador in the Yemeni Embassy in Tehran. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has received Yemen’s “new ambassador to Tehran, Ibrahim Mohamed Al-Dailami” and hailed “Houthi steadfastness” in the war against the Saudi-led coalition, Iranian news agencies reported.

On the basis of such developments, the Houthis will most likely pursue two main courses of action. The first is to continue to obstruct the implementation of the Stockholm agreement regarding Hodeida.

Analysts predict that not only will the two sides fail to reach new understandings in that framework but also that the Houthis will jeopardise it through military actions in and around Hodeida as a means to pressure Griffiths into being more flexible, even if those actions produce no concrete gains on the ground. The second course relates to the abovementioned redeployment of forces and materiel southwards. The purpose is to open a new battle arena with its sights set on the Saudi presence in Aden, in response to the Riyadh agreement and its repercussions.

Hodeida remains the Houthis’ most strategically crucial location. Their continued hold on the port city secures their survival in Sanaa. For the Houthis, to lose Hodeida is to lose their battle for survival. They are taking all possible measures to prevent this, the most important, at present, being the pre-emptive redeployment southwards and preparations for a possible military operation against the Saudi command in the south.

Tehran’s welcoming of the Houthi ambassador as the official representative of Yemen is a strong sign that Iran encourages the Houthis’ new tactics as a means to assert pressure on Riyadh at a time when Iran itself is gripped by domestic tensions. However, if the recognition of the Houthi ambassador is a strong token of political support against the backdrop of developments in Yemen, it is less powerful than active military support.

Whatever the case, Yemen appears to be on the threshold of a new round of escalation, contrary to Griffiths’ optimistic assertion that Yemen is on course to peace and stability.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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